I watched Dakota sashay around the room, air-kiss everyone, and settle on the sofas to my right, my heart thudding double time in my chest. She gave me a tight-lipped greeting, as if she wasn't sure if I was friend or foe.
I returned the expression, but in a more charming, albeit fake fashion. Then I looked away and pretended interest in the conversation to my left. Something to do with sushi restaurants and the level of mercury in fish.
Garret and Chloe stood. Their arguing had continued while Dakota made her rounds. To me, he said, "I'll be right back." Then they disappeared downstairs.
Which I took as my opening. Dakota being here wasn't coincidence, whether I believed in it or not. Too many people were connected to this club.
The young guy with Dakota whispered in her ear. She rolled her eyes and shook her head. He leaned closer, and she pulled back ever so slightly. She looked away, and I did the same, not wanting to get caught staring.
Dakota scowled, and her guy frowned. It was like watching a couple of children. He stood up and stomped across the room. She scooted over into his spot, clearly telling him not to return, and I honed in on the opportunity.
I popped up, then sat down beside her. With an exasperated air, I sighed and bobbed my head toward the deep sea lovers. "Ugh, they're talking about tuna, and I'm so allergic."
She glanced from me to them and back again. A frown puckered the space between her thinly waxed brows. She was trying to place me, I could tell. I prayed the auburn wig did its job. "They say it's so good for you," she finally agreed, "but it smells awful."
"No kidding!" I petted her fuzzy, leopard purse. "This is gorgeous. Where'd you get it?"
Her eyes lit up. She was a fashion girl, clearly. "It was a gift from a special guy."
"The one who just left?"
She scrunched up her face. "No way. He's a tool."
"Kind of a cute tool, though." I giggled like a schoolgirl and almost rolled my eyes at the obnoxious sound.
"Yeah, but he tries to boss me around, and I don't need a father."
"Ohmigod, I know exactly what you mean. Why do some guys get pushy?"
She turned her body toward me, her rose perfume engulfing me.
I gagged and played it off as a cough, sipping my champagne and breathing through my mouth.
"I know, right?" she said. "They think they own you. What's with that?"
"It's not like they pay our bills."
"Exactly. I don't need a sugar daddy. I make my own money. And anything I can't afford, I have a very generous uncle."
A breath trapped in my lungs.
The shift of her eyes suggested she remembered he was currently residing six feet under and no longer writing checks.
Before the mood darkened, I yelled, "Plus, aren't you like famous? I've seen you on a billboard."
The haunted mask vanished, and she beamed again. "Yes. I'm a model. Dakota Hall." She held out her petite hand.
I placed my fingers against hers and gave one of those girly handshakes. The kind that suggests I have no power—I'm not a threat.
"I'm Jamie Cartier. New in town. Garret Sumners invited me up here."
She cooed. "Ohmigod, Garret is yummy, right?"
"Yes, he is."
The waitress arrived with a round of drinks for the room, paid for by Fish Boy. We all nodded our thanks, cheered to his generosity, and then Dakota and I settled back into the cushions.
"It's not like he and I would last anyway," Dakota said, jumping back into conversation so quickly I took a moment to realize who she was talking about.
She nodded. "He's twenty-two and still doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. Can you imagine?"
"That's absurd." I may have laid the sarcasm on a little thick, but she hadn't noticed.
"What about you? Do you have a special guy?"
I frowned and shook my head. "No. All the guys I know are either childishly protective or lying jerks." Not that I was thinking of any two guys in particular.
Her head bobbed up and down in agreement.
We spent the next half hour chit-chatting about men. She gave me tips on how to model, as if, and pretended she wasn't aware of her guy flirting with every girl in the room, including Caleigh.
I tried to steer the conversation to her personal life, but she didn't give out many details, and she was tight lipped about her uncle. It wasn't like I could blatantly ask.
The tool grabbed some girl's butt, watching Dakota the entire time. The girl squealed, and Dakota scoffed. "Hey, you wanna get out of here?" she asked me.
My heartbeat accelerated. "Sure."
But instead of the two of us leaving alone, she invited half the room. A party at Dakota Hall's place.
Garret hadn't returned, and unless someone at the party carried Shooting Stars, that part of the night was a bust. But I figured Dakota was too good a lead to drop. While I had a hard time picturing the party girl as a mastermind behind a complicated murder and frame-up, she was clearly the link between Donna Martinez and the judge. Had she and Donna been friends? Had she introduced Donna to the killer? Had the killer been a friend of the both of them? One of the it crowd currently surrounding us? I prayed I was about to find out.
As we stood to leave, I caught Caleigh's eye. She hadn't been invited, and for me to suggest she come may have aroused suspicion.
I gave her an I'll-be-fine stare and hurried out to Dakota's waiting limo.
* * *
Dakota spent the entire ride on the phone in some hushed conversation. Instead of sitting beside her, I sat squished between a loud guy in skinny jeans and his date, a tiny girl who giggled nonstop. I wasn't able to hear any of Dakota's conversation.
Her apartment turned out to be a penthouse. We stepped off the private elevator, and I nearly gasped. It wasn't as large as I imagined, but I could tell that the place had set her uncle back mega bucks. There was no way she afforded this on her own. Trust me, I knew what new models made.
A gas fireplace snuggled against the back wall beside the L-shaped stairs, opposite the elevator. The other two walls consisted of glass, floor-to-ceiling windows. To say the view was breathtaking was an understatement.
Everyone pushed through the doors, settling onto her leather furniture, turning on the stereo, lighting a fire, despite the blowing AC. She must have had these impromptu gatherings often. They all fell into a groove, as if each person had their own task.
I made my way to the windows beside the stairs, calculating how long before I could slip away and investigate upstairs.
Dakota and another woman emerged from a side room with several bottles of champagne. Corks popped, and someone handed me a glass before making a toast.
I joined them in the center of the living room.
"To Dakota, the best friend ever."
Everyone cheered. I proudly managed to keep my eyes from rolling at the kiss-assery around me.
The elevator doors opened, and Garret and Chloe stepped into the room. I felt a lift of hope grab at my stomach. Maybe my Shooting Stars connection wasn't a colossal bust after all.
Garret did a quick survey of the room, immediately meeting my eyes. He patted his jacket pocket and winked.
This night just kept getting better.
My heels clicked across Dakota's hardwood floors as I quickly cozied up to my "supplier," despite Chloe's scowl.
"Where's your friend?" he asked me.
"She couldn't make it."
"I'm glad you did."
I caught my delighted reflection in his eyes. "Me too."
Chloe dramatically yawned then walked over to Skinny Jeans.
"She doesn't seem to like me," I pointed out as soon as she was out of earshot.
Garret shrugged. "We're close. She’s just protective. She feels she needs to look out for my best interests."
"And clearly she doesn't see me as in your best interest."
He grinned. "I'm sure once she gets to know you, she'll have a change of heart."
I glanced her way. Although she talked to Skinny Jeans, she was still shooting daggers at me.
I felt like telling her not to worry. Beyond tonight, I had no use for either of the Club Kid siblings.
I grabbed Garret's arm, ignoring looks from his sister, and followed him into the center of the room where he nabbed a glass of champagne. Then he pulled me down next to him on one of the gleaming white sofas and reached into his jacket pocket.
"Here." He held out his hand and dropped two nondescript, white pills into my palm. "Only one at a time."
"They'll send me to the moon?" I asked, turning them over.
"All the way and back."
"Thanks. I hope they weren't hard for you to get."
He popped one into his mouth and swallowed it dry. "Not at all. You just need the right connections."
I raised my hand to my mouth and pretended to take a pill. I sipped from my glass, tossed my head back for affect, and dropped both pills into my clutch.
"You know, I was a little worried when you disappeared earlier," I told him. "I wasn't sure you were coming back."
He grinned at me. "Baby, I wouldn't pass up an opportunity like this." His hand went around my shoulders, his fingers squeezing suggestively at my bare arm.
I looked up at him through my eyelashes. "I'm glad you weren't gone long. Your connection was nearby?"
He nodded. "I got connections all over. Don't you worry. Anything you want, I can get."
Scary. But I was interested in just one connection in particular tonight.
"I got the feeling your connection was at the club," I hinted coyly.
Garret just smiled, his eyes lazy as he watched me.
"Don't tell me…it's that bartender with the spiked hair, right?" I fished, watching him for any indication I was on the right track.
But he just grinned wider. I couldn't tell if it was the drugs taking effect already or if he thought he was being seductive.
I was trying to phrase my next question, when Skinny Jeans hailed Garret from the other side of the room. My "date" turned his lazy gaze toward his friend, excusing himself as he got up.
As frustrated as I was at not getting a name out of him, I recognized an opportunity to slip upstairs when I saw one.
I mumbled "Restroom" to anyone who might have been within earshot and quickly made my way up the marble tiled staircase.
A hallway led off the landing in two directions. To the right, I spied a guest bathroom, to the left a series of what looked like bedrooms.
I passed a guest room, neat, professionally decorated, and unused looking. Another followed, similarly outfitted with brass furniture and floral bedding that clearly spoke to an older decorating hand than Dakota's. I passed by, going for a set of closed double doors at the end of the hallway. I slowly grabbed the handles and pushed one down.
It opened, and a hint of rose petals greeted me. I paused, listening for sounds within. I had tried to keep tabs on everyone at the party, but I couldn't be certain someone hadn't slipped up there for a little private time. Luckily, only my own breath greeted my ears. I slipped inside, quickly shutting the doors behind me.
A small bedside lamp cast a soft glow over the room. A large, pink-clad bed took up one side of the room, an array of cocktail dresses cast off on its surface. Shoes, handbags, an assortment of cosmetics littered the rest of the room, the mess clashing with the custom furnishings in dark woods with gleaming silver fittings. A huge portrait of Dakota in a bikini hung above the bed. Tacky.
I raided the dresser first, opening the top drawer, looking for anything that might point toward the girl's guilt. I pushed around panties, bras, T-shirts, camisoles, teddies, pj's, shorts. But the only thing I learned was that Dakota's lingerie tended toward the skimpy and she had a distinct favoritism toward leopard prints.
I was just moving on to the closet when I heard footsteps echo in the hallway outside the door.
"Dakota?" I heard a voice call.
It was Skinny Jeans. I quickly tiptoed to the closet, stepping into a walk-in larger than my entire office, and closed the door behind me. I backed into the corner, stepping on several pairs of pumps. The heels knocked together, sounding explosive to my super-hyped ears.
The bedroom door opened. "Dakota?" the guy called. "You in here?"
I held my breath.
Footsteps moved into the room, making a slow circle. Finally they paused, then retreated back the way they'd come, shutting the bedroom door behind them.
I waited a beat, forcing my breathing to return to normal. It was only a matter of minutes before someone noticed I was missing and came looking again.
I opened the doors, doing a quick scan of the closet, before deciding it held nothing more incriminating than an array of slutty clothes at designer prices.
Feeling borrowed time tick by, I flew around the room like a whirlwind, checking the nightstands and under the bed—looking for anything that was a direct link to Donna.
I spun through the master bath, quickly going through medicine cabinets and countless makeup drawers. While Dakota had an impressive number of prescriptions for such a seemingly young and healthy girl, none matched the pills Garret had given me.
I was running out of places to look.
I scanned the room, a black bookcase along the back wall the only place I'd yet to tear apart. Rather than holding a library of actual books, there were dozens of framed photos arranged on the shelves, most of them holding pictures of Dakota in various poses. I took a step toward it, grabbing a black, leather bound book from the top shelf. I flipped it open, greeted by an eight-by-ten glossy of Dakota on a beach. Her modeling portfolio.
I thumbed through a few pages, seeing photos of her in evening gowns, contorting into ridiculous poses that I knew only too well. There were quite a few bikini pics, a couple that I recognized as having been shot in Malibu. And one, I noticed, honing in on a photo halfway through the book, that looked eerily familiar. Dakota was posed on a crop of jagged rocks, overlooking the Pacific, her eyes looking out to sea, her body curled protectively over itself in an artful way that somehow still looked graceful. I knew this location. And I knew that pose. It was the same one I'd been instructed to take by my photographer years ago.
With my heart thudding wildly in my chest, I flipped the page over, checking the photographer's imprint on the back.
And almost dropped the book when I read it.